Junkfood Science: Processed foods aren’t real food

June 15, 2007

Processed foods aren’t real food

Processed foods aren’t healthy to eat because everybody knows that they’re bad for us — they’re junk food and so unhealthy they must banned from school lunchrooms to protect children.... or so goes popular wisdom.

But what are processed foods?

They’re fake food made in factories, says David Ludwig, M.D., Ph.D., director of the pediatric weight loss Optimal Weight for Life Program in Boston. He tells kids that they’re bad because they’re loaded with calories and artificial ingredients that are making them fat and unhealthy. In contrast, “real foods come from nature.”

“Food Label Literacy” has become part of today’s school lesson plans, teaching kids to read labels and that if they find any long word or unfamiliar chemical names, then it’s not real food and nothing they should put into their bodies.

If this is what you and your family believes, just for fun, let’s test our “Processed Food Literacy.”

Can you guess what this is?

Bring glyceryl esters of fatty acids to room temperature to increase their plasticity, then beat with sucrose to entrap air particles in the mix. Beat phosphatidylethanolamine into the matrix which is now a foam emulsion with droplets of glyceryl esters of fatty acids and dispersed air. Add amylopectin and amylose, the protein gluten, and sodium bicarbonate. Crosslinking occurs between disulphide bonds in the gluten, creating a rubbery texture, with air trapped in the mix. Heat the mix so that the air and dihydrogen monoxide particles expand making the foam rise, coagulate the ovalbumin and stiffen the lining of the cells. Amylopectin and amylose undergo gelatinisation which further stiffens the mix. The foam expands and becomes a solid gel with a light porous texture.

Did you figure it out? And would you eat it?

Before revealing the answer, let’s go back in time — a few decades or even a few millennium, if you’d rather — to our ancestors’ or grandparents’ day. Countless women have been preparing foods from scratch to make them edible, better tasting, more nutritious, or “put them up” to be stored through the winter. Ingredients have been ground, dried, roasted, canned, frozen, baked, steamed, fermented, distilled, fried, boiled, mixed and filtered. It’s called cooking.

It’s also food processing. That’s all food processing is. Yet today, the term has come to mean those very same food preparations done by someone other than a homemaker or somewhere other than a home kitchen.

“Oh, but these are different because they’re full of chemicals. They’re not natural.”

Perhaps if there had been food labels on Grandma’s cooking, with all of the ingredients listed by their chemical names, we might think differently! Cooking is actually organic chemistry in action — a chemistry lab in our kitchen.

For example, lecithin is the name for the natural emulsifier (phospholipid) in egg yolks; acetic acid is vinegar; sodium chloride is salt (from rocks); ascorbic acid is vitamin C; agar and carrageenan are natural gums from seaweed; pectin is the fiber in plants like apples; sodium bicarbonate is baking soda (which comes from an ore mine); sucrose is sugar from beets or corn; etc. They’re all also technically food additives, but whether they’re natural or artificial doesn’t make them more or less safe. Our bodies can’t tell the difference, either, as they don’t read labels. The identical chemical is the same to our bodies, regardless of where it came from.

If fresh foods had labels with their chemical ingredients, that might creep us out, too, if we didn’t know about chemicals. Some chemicals found naturally in foods are even toxic, but not in the amounts we eat: such as the cyanide in almonds, oxalic acid in spinach, benzene in cranberries and bananas, and avidin in raw egg whites — all good foods.

For those who missed the inside scoop on chemicals, check out posts here and here.

Some things in food may sound gross and not like anything that should be in something we eat. If we realized where they came from, we might even see them as contaminants. For instance, would you put wood ashes into your food?

Ick, right?

Well, the ancient Anasazi Indians processed corn by grinding it with the ashes of burned juniper branches and chamisa. It raised the alkalinity and made their sacred blue corn bluer, but it also had other important purposes — just like the nixtamalization method traditional in South American cultures of processing corn by boiling it in a lime solution. (You may know similarly processed corn as hominy or grits.) This processing helped remove the tough outer hulls of dried corn kernels and improve the water absorption and starch gelatinization of the kernels so that when they were ground it made a finer textured flour. Those ashes also boosted the nutrition of corn — the ashes themselves supplied additional minerals, chamisa being unusually high in potassium, magnesium and sodium. The calcium content alone increased 30-fold with the addition of culinary ashes. But, more importantly, the ashes unbound the niacin in the corn so it could be utilized by the body and provide a more complete protein. Such ingenuity meant the survival of ancient peoples, but few of us would think to grind ashes into our corn or want anything in our food that doesn’t seem pure.

Today, it’s also popular to think that raw, fresh vegetables are better for us than anything cooked, frozen or canned. We fear that such processing depletes food of important nutrients. Actually, numerous studies have shown that while heating or storage results in some loss of certain vitamins, it’s in such negligible amounts there’s little effect on our health. Cooking or canning turn out to be not much different from what happens with fresh produce when it’s harvested or stored. According to the FDA, canned or frozen produce, which is typically processed quickly after harvest, can be more nutritious than fresh produce we find in the store.

And did you know that there are lots of foods that are actually more nutritious when they’re cooked? Carotenoids — those colorful pigments in various red, yellow and orange vegetables — and lycopene in tomatoes, are more readily absorbed by our bodies when the produce is cooked than when raw foods. Cooked sweet yellow corn, for instance, has about 44 percent higher total antioxidant activity than the same corn before cooking, if you’re concerned with these properties.

But cooking gives us many benefits, such as that heat kills harmful bacteria that could make us sick, which is especially important for people with fragile immune systems and the elderly. It also denatures proteins so that they can be digested better, makes foods easier to chew and digest, and makes some proteins (beans, seeds and sprouts) nontoxic. Besides making foods taste better, when sugars, salts and vinegars are used in cooking and baking, they act as preservatives to help keep foods fresh and from getting moldy or growing germs that could make us sick. And mixing things up with fats help our bodies use more nutrients and vitamins from salads, carrots, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, watermelon, cantaloupe, corn, and egg yolks.

The Whiz

But no food epitomizes processed food better than Cheese Whiz. Some turn down their noses at such a cheesy food — sorry, couldn’t resist. :)

A recent Wired article even called it “the world’s most unnatural food.” Author Patrick Di Justo attempted to horrify and disgust us by describing its ingredients as waste products being dumped on unsuspecting customers!

Well, I’m about to show you — using the very same health benefits claimed by natural food and supplement proponents — that Cheese Whiz should actually be called the world’s best health food! :)

Those ingredients in Cheese Whiz include:


The first ingredient, whey, was described by Mr. Di Justo as being a cheap byproduct of cheesemaking that’s usually thrown out. Kraft, however, he writes, “plows it back in ... to increase volume” and increase profits.

Whey is actually a pure, all-natural, high-quality protein from milk. It’s that liquid that separates out from fresh milk when we make cheese or yogurt. More in cheese just makes it softer. (The drier the cheese, the harder it is.)

Supplement companies, however, give whey extraordinary properties. Whey of Life calls it the “Gold Standard” of protein for serious athletes to improve performance; aid weight loss; maintain the immune system; essential for healthy aging and “can add years to your life and help prevent diabetes, cancer, and heart disease;” help reduce high blood pressure and cholesterol; “has been shown in animal and in vitro studies to inhibit the growth of cancers;” and is recommended after surgery or burns to heal wounds. Whey is a new functional food and even sold as a dietary supplement. :)

Lactic Acid

When bacteria digests milk sugar during the cheese-making process, lactic acid is formed. Hydrogen ions are part of every acid, writes Di Justo, and taste a little sour.

No, it’s nothing like battery acid or hydrogen bombs. Lactic acid fermentation is just culturing foods, like yogurts, sourdough breads, pickles, kefir, sauerkraut, buttermilk and cheeses, that people have long enjoyed. Some of the well-known friendly bacteria that do this include Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Streptococcus thermophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidum. Those can be the “active cultures” on yogurt containers or acidophilus milk.

There are plenty of natural health food and supplement vendors eagerly promoting incredible health benefits of lactic acid-fermented foods and supplements. Lactic bacteria have the most important role in fermented foods, according to Quest Health Library. Lactic acid fermented bacteria are behind “probiotic” foods that are all the rage today. Supplements being sold claim to prevent Candida albican, prevent constipation, stimulate the immune system, and “restore the natural bacterial balance of the body.” The University of Iowa and the Dairy Council even declare them anticarcinogenic and able to reduce cardiovascular disease. :)

Sodium alginate

“Every good processed food has seaweed extract,” wrote Di Justo. “Alginate, a gum found in the cell walls of brown algae, is flavorless but increases viscosity.”

This may sound inedible, but of course Asian peoples have long eaten and enjoyed seaweed vegetables and if you’re an advocate of health food or functional foods, you may even believe in it's special powers. It’s also one of those “healthy” soluble fibers shown in animal studies to lower cholesterol and blood sugars in diabetics. Even in mainstream medicine, it’s used in some antacids and products to treat heartburn and acid reflux (GERD). According to PDR Health: “Folk remedy uses of seaweed products have included fever, eczema, gallstone and liver disease, gout, menstrual problems, hypertension, kidney disease and scabies.” Some natural food publications give alginate even more astounding abilities, such as detoxification of heavy metals and radioactivity, treatment for lethargy, aging, fibrocystic breast disease, and weight loss! Aglinate supplements can be purchased in capsules, powders, tablets and liquid teas. :)


“This yellow-orange pigment, found in spinach and citrus fruits, enhances the color of processed cheese,” wrote Di Justo.

What could be more natural?

It’s also a provitamin A and according to Natural Products Insider magazine, this healthful ingredient benefits the natural products industry with “an explosion of sales and healthy products.” It admits, though, that the science behind some of the exorbitant claims “might not always be definitive.” :)

Sodium phosphate

This one’s fun. Di Justo describes it as a “degreaser, preservative, urine acidifier, enema ingredient – is there anything Na3PO4 can't do? Here, it's another emulsifying agent. Proponents of natural cheese cited this additive when lobbying to have Kraft's products regulated as 'embalmed cheese.' The Feds settled on the less-mortifying 'process cheese,'" he wrote.

Embalmed cheese! If you’re a health advocate you likely have a very different view of phosphorus. According to VitaGuideOrg, this essential mineral plays a key role in the function and structure of our bodies, “central to the process of bone mineralization and structural makeup of bone. In addition, phosphorus is included in the structure of nucleotides and nucleic acids (including adenosine triphosphate). And, the structure of cellular membranes is composed of phosphorus in its phospholipid form. It has been said that life is built upon phosphorus.” And MD Advice, which supplies consumer health information for health publications, adds that it also promotes energy metabolism; the growth and repair of all body tissues; and acidifies the urine to reduce kidney stones.


The Wired article told us it “increases the osmotic transport of moisture, speeding up the cheese-drying process. It also inhibits bacterial growth – in other words, it's a preservative. Easy Cheese has twice the sodium of typical organic cheddar.”

Salt is used when making all cheeses and while Cheese Whiz has more salt than “organic” cheddar, it has less salt than most cottage cheeses, Parmesans or blue cheeses. Just to confuse things, compared to gourmet cheeses like brie, cheddar or fontina, Cheese Whiz has fewer calories, less fat, more calcium and the same amount of protein.

It also costs many times less than fancy, gourmet cheeses which has made it popular with ordinary Americans and the essential ingredient for some of nation’s most popular and well-known dishes, such as the original Gino’s Philadelphia Cheese steak sandwich and nacho cheese dip.

As Dr. Steve Ritter, Ph.D., senior editor of Chemical & Engineering News, wrote in a funny article “What’s in that stuff?”, pasteurized process cheese “is made from one or more cheeses, such as cheddar or colby, and may have cream or anhydrous milkfat added. [Anydrous milkfat is a pure milkfat made exclusively from milk by removing almost all of the water and non-fat solids.] The cheese is blended and heated with an emulsifier — typically a sodium or potassium phosphate, tartrate, or citrate — and other optional ingredients such as water, salt, artificial color, and spices or other flavorings.” To make it of various consistencies for spreading or squirting out of a can, it can have different amounts of moisture or milkfats.

The recipe for Cheese Whiz sounds a lot like that homemade cake recipe at the beginning of the post. Yes, that recipe, which at first probably sounded like a bad processed food, was for a fresh, from-scratch cake that Grandma used to make. She just didn’t provide a label with the chemical names for the butter, sugar, eggs, flour and baking soda.

Knowing what we now know about the ingredients in Cheese Whiz, we can make an informed choice to spend a fortune on dietary supplements that lots of people are eager to sell us for our “health,” or we can get the very same ingredients in a jar of Cheese Whiz. :)

In Memory

This article is dedicated to Edwin Traisman, who died last week at the age of 91. He was a food scientist who, as director of research at Kraft, led the invention of Cheese Whiz. He went on to own five McDonald’s franchises during the 1950s to 1960s. His wife said that he broke ground by being the first to hire women, even though it violated company rules at the time, but he risked his franchises in order to give equal employment opportunities to women. He also helped to invent the process of freeze-drying which enabled McDonald’s restaurants to serve Idaho potatoes year-round that were consistent in quality, fresh and crisp.

In the 1970s, he returned to his first passion, research, and became a manager at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Food Research Institute. When hemorrhagic E.coli foodborne illness became a serious health problem across this country, he initiated research to learn how to kill the pathogen and help keep food safe. He and his team were the first to discover that cooking meats to certain temperatures killed the bacteria. His work no doubt saved countless lives and brought pleasure to many more.

© 2007 Sandy Szwarc

Bookmark and Share